Changing Middlesboro One Civic Argument at a Time

In January 2019, teens in Middlesboro, Kentucky, chose local problems they cared about as the focus for in-depth writing and research projects. In late April, they presented their solutions in an unlikely venue—the local mall.

“It was like being at the mall at Christmastime. It was abuzz with excitement,” said Jean Wolph, Kentucky Writing Project’s network director who led the College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP) in Middlesboro Independent Schools. “It was one of the most rewarding and exciting educational events I’ve had the privilege to be involved with,” she added, “probably ever.”

Along with Suzanne Jackson, Louisville Writing Project co-director, teachers at the middle and high schools in Middlesboro, a small city in the Appalachian region of Kentucky, came up with the project after participating in the National Writing Project’s C3WP professional development program last year. The program aims strengthen teachers’ ability to teach argument-based writing. Their goal was to help students sharpen their persuasive writing skills by engaging with a real community audience—their families, local decision-makers, and even shoppers.

“The kids loved it,” said high school English teacher Dawn Proffitt, who spearheaded the event. “They were giddy and proud of themselves. They came back to school the next day energized.”

Student papers tackled a wide range of local issues including homelessness, the lack of recreational options for teens, and how teachers can address racism in the classroom. “An especially powerful essay was on drug addiction by a girl whose stepfather was in treatment,” said Wolph. “It was clear that the kids had a personal stake in the issues they wrote about.”

Before crafting their arguments, students conducted “tons of research” that went far beyond the cursory internet research high schoolers often do, said Proffitt.

Teachers selected the 10 strongest arguments from students in Grades 7 to 12 to present publicly. Students then sent invitations to local decision-makers.

The turnout bested even the heaviest day of holiday shopping season.

Four school board members turned out, as did local college professors, city council members, and the mayor. A state trooper was surprised to find that a freshman wanted to talk with him about drug arrests she’d observed in the local Walgreens parking lot, said Proffitt. “They had a very long conversation and he stayed for the entire event.”

Some passersby stopped to argue with students who researched the dangers of second-hand smoking and proposed a public ban. “Our kids stood their ground,” she said. “They were equipped with their research and they were able to present it well.”

City council members expressed amazement that “students were doing that caliber of research at that age,” she said. “It was a defining moment in my career to see my kids have that much success.”

One project had real impact. Two seniors who researched the lack of mental health care in schools proposed creating a system for identifying student needs and providing counseling or referrals. Within weeks, the school board announced at a meeting that they would conduct an online mental health survey for high school students, acknowledging the work of the two seniors. Those students “were in shock,” Proffitt recalled. “They were so proud.”